Sunday, July 09, 2006

South African Poets

Though most Americans think of disability literature as emerging from national concerns, either overtly political (for example the ADA, ADAPT or the independent living movement) or as attempts to refute the negative representations of disability that have been nurtured in the shadow of Emersonian individualism and self-sufficiency, there are other disability literatures that are generating important work as well. One of these is South African disability literature, especially poetry.

A good place to start in South African disabilities poetry is with Liesl Jobson. Jobson’s work struggles with some of the same issues as American writers like Karen Fiser or Jim Ferris. In the opening to her poem “Angels, the Voices”

Angels, the voices
don’t like prozac
don’t like lithium
don’t like doctors
the things
I hear

she contests the medical model of disability. Further in the poem, though, she writes

Angels, the voices
dig holes in unlikely spots
to bury bad pills and
toxic religion

coupling religion and medicine together as responsible for the negative views of disability. While religion in much American disability poetry tends to function as a salve that counterbalances the need for political action (in ways that echo Marx’s reference to religion as the opiate of the masses), in South African writing religion – i.e Christianity – is frequently coupled with political oppression.

Political/economic oppression has a much larger role in the landscape of South African disability poetry than in American. The literal landscape is a key featureas well, in much South African work. The writing of Kobus Moolman, poet, playwrite and editor of the literary journal Fidelities is a case in point. In poems like “Limpopo Village” and “On the Outskirts,” he describes both the physical legacies of colonialism

stump of bone, blackened wood
blade that belongs to rusted iron

and the threat posed by the dispossessed

twisted wire fence that lets
all the outskirts in

Moolman has recently put together a collection of disability poetry and prose that explores uniquely African themes. It should be interesting to see the perspective that this collection adds to such anthologies as Kenny Fries, Staring Back.

One other African writer deserves to be mentioned here, Deaf Nigerian poet Sylvester Nurudeen Oseremen Nurudeen (aka Urdeen). Urdeen’s work is raw, forceful and unrelenting in its attack on African Christianity for its appropriation of the disabled for the church’s own benefit:

so they came in search of me
someone with a difference
a handicap they thought I have
someone to test their faith upon
someone to put their church on the map
someone sickly,
someone like “urdeen the deaf”

At the same time it is both evocative of the landscape and fingering a problem recognizable to all disabled,

But yet the thought creeps at me…
A ghostly sheep out of an African plain
The truth creeps at me
Like sunlight into dew

You are feared urdeen,
The image says

Unfortunately, editors and readers interested in Urdeen’s work quickly find themselves flooded with nuisance e-mail once they attempt contact him. So, beware. It’s too bad. He has a lot to offer.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Is There a Disability Culture Writing?

June 2006’s issue of Breath & Shadow has taken an unprecedented step and, in an editorial the size of a novella, tried to thrash out the question of whether there is anything that can be called disability culture writing and, if so, what it is. The editorial takes the form of a virtual round table among the editorial staff.

Editor Sharon Wachsler contributes some interesting observations culled from both her role at B&S and her personal experiences as a writer with and without a disability. One thing Wachsler notes is that there appear to be a loose core of characteristics that differentiate the work of writers who have had lifelong disabilities from those who have acquired disabilities in early adulthood. The writings of those with acquired disabilities tend to have a greater a sense of outrage and frustration and, having grown up non-disabled, feel a greater sense of entitlement to freedom and independence. By contrast, those with lifelong disabilities, while also showing frustration, more readily embrace their disability and identify with the disabled community. The writings often reflect a disability pride.

Wachsler also observes another division in the work she receives. The bulk of the poetry seems to come from writers with a mental illness whereas much more fiction comes from writers with physical disabilities. This last observation, if true, may have some grounding in the nature of poetry as opposed to fiction. Fiction writers Anne Finger and Noria Jablonski, both point out that poetry is often a very individualistic and self-referential form of expression whereas fiction demands that the writer put themself in the role of others, if only to be able to develop characters. Despite the fact that the field of disability literature is dominated by poetry and life narrative writing, it may be easier for a writer with a physical disability (especially one present since early life) to be able to put themselves into the minds of a number of characters, than it would be for a person working against mental illness.

So grab a pint of Guinness, set aside some time and mull over this latest offering from Breath & Shadow. You may not agree with them (they don't even agree with each other), but Wachsler and her posse – Chris Kuell, John Allen and Paul Kahn – have given us something to think about.